In which the question is posed of the Bayreuth Festival: “Who needs it?” And the answer is proposed: “We do.”

Warum Bayreuth?

My absolute favorite Wagner site on the Internet is The Wagnerian.  I admire it beyond praise, and one day would seek to emulate it.  But the author’s dedication, erudition and, one must conclude, available hours exceed my own by such a degree that I simply include the blog in my daily subscriptions on Google Reader and lap it all up.

Recently “The Wagnerian” weighed in on the tiff between Bayreuth and the worldwide Wagner Societies and, cautioning that he himself is not a member of a Society, went further and asked who cared about Bayreuth anyway.  An extended quote:

While I understand why the societies might be a bit “miffed” at the poor way this has been handled – and indeed the poor reasoning behind it – I have no idea why people are so “keen” to get tickets to recent productions. Yes, the Festival is without doubt of some historical interest to anyone interested in Wagner and yes it does have acoustic properties that benefit the Ring to some degree, but most specifically Parsifal (although anyone familiar with the history of Wagner will know how  many conductors dislike conducting there). However, long gone seem to be the days when the festival attracted the worlds greatest Wagner performers on, and under,  its stage (often for greatly reduced fees). Indeed, there is, to paraphrase poorly Wagner’s favorite author, something wrong in the state of Bayreuth  when the finest cast and conductor in a production of Tristan und Isolde is to be found not in Bayreuth but elsewhere this year.

More Pants

Equally gone – at least looking at present productions – are the days of Wieland’s innovative, if texturally sensitive productions or indeed Wolfgang’s “regressive” yet interesting productions. Now, it might be argued, we have something of the worse of  “Regietheater”: with a Meistersinger containing representations of Wagner with a giant penis (even if he would have been enamoured himself which such a devise or representation) and a tasteless Tannhäuser that is not only textually illogical and “untrue” but concludes with players being dragged off to “gas chambers” – productions often critically derided. (And this is from someone who finds Regietheatre less problematic then many). And the future is not looking much brighter as Gudrun Stegen of Deutsche Welle pointed out recently with a 2013 Ring Cycle being directed by, “Frank Castorf, the controversial director of the Berliner Volksbühne theater. Critics bemoan his complete lack of opera experience”.

Yes, Bayreuth is important, but the large number of Wagner productions in Germany alone, never mind elsewhere – often with casts that consist of some of the finest Wagner artists in the world  and with which Bayreuth seems unable to compete – may perhaps make the Festival far less important than the present “furore” would suggest.

Now, this (to me) is good stuff.  Very good stuff indeed.  It was posted more than a week ago and it has been brooding in my mind ever since.  One instinctively wants to dismiss it, yet it is too well observed, and too steeped in the truth, to ignore.

I do have two points of reply, however, that I would offer to invite comment.

First, the building is Wagner’s understanding of his art.  What he was after in writing the Ring he had to build that building to attain:  A civic as well as artistic experience that resembled (if it resembled anything) the Dionysian festivals of Athens.  There, the population would drop its work, walk up the hill, and for each of three successive days partake in stories about themselves, their myths, and their relationship to the gods.  Walking into the auditorium at Bayreuth teaches you — nay, permits you uniquely to experience — a fundamental aspect of Wagner’s artistic aim.  So does taking off work, taking a train from the airport to the town, putting on your facy duds, and walking up the hill in the middle of the day.  The physical event of attending Bayreuth is as much Wagner as listening to the first note of Parsifal.  Thus, to me, Bayreuth is needed to the same extent that the autograph copy of one of his scores is needed:  It is something that he touched and designed, that palpably incorporates his central vision of art.

The second point is that, at least post-World War II, Bayreuth is that rare artistic endeavor, the laboratory.  Though Cosima thought of it as a museum, for sixty years it has in fact been a research lab.  The works are mounted after substantial preparation — years’ long in the case of the core artistic staff — and the dictate seems to be to “do it differently,” as the Meister himself implored us.  Once mounted, the production is brought back into rehearsal for five successive seasons, subjected to change and rediscovery, and then purposely discarded in favor of a new approach by a new team.

Sometimes this means that wonderful productions die (or, in the case of Harry Kupfer’s astounding Ring, get carted off to another house for yet more refinement).  Sometimes it means that crappy productions subsist.  (I thought I would never be allowed out of the theatre when I watched the third act of Tristan in which the shepard sat on a junked-up car seat in a huge dust-bin stage, while light shafts traced the proscenium at a coma-inducing pace and, at the end, Isolde sang in gold lamé.)

But the point is not to produce popular productions, or to produce definitive interpretations.  It is to question, and question, and probe, and seek, and interpret.  If the works at issue were Don Carlos, Boheme or Peter Grimes, I suspect we might begin to seek the bottom of the intellectual pool after a few decades.  But the works at issue in Bayreuth are the Ring, Tristan, Lohengrin, Meistersinger — works that continue to challenge musical and theatrical interpretation, that seem to have been written in order to invite audiences to consider (and reconsider) themes of redemption, divinity, purgative love, and resignation to fate.  And if we see something onstage that we have not seen before, I ask you: Are you surprised?  Did you come to Richard Wagner’s theatre in order to see something familiar, something that would make you comfortable, and would remind you of good times in the past?

If so, you got on the wrong plane.  The Met is this way; Bayreuth is over here.





  • You are far, far to kind. And your reply makes a more constructive response than some of the “death threat” emails I have received. I exaggerate but, but I have tried the suggestion of one email and can report such a thing is physically impossible – alas.

    Unfortunately, I am engaged in a matter of the highest urgency at the moment – involving a pair of golden pince-nez, a neck wound and cryptic last words – but I digress. And alas, all of this leaves me very little time to reply to your highly erudite analysis (And I might say, that your level of analysis and posts in general, are of far more value than the superficial “eclectic mix” that I produce. You blog is always on my high priority list). But briefly:

    Regarding the first point:

    I would agree completely that Bayreuth is part of the “soul” of Wagner and I felt that I agreed with that point in my original “rant”. Therein, I considered it of historical importance and indeed curiosity to Wagnerites. It is, however, little more than a ritual to most of us that is, behind everything else, purely of some “nostalgic or at least “sentimental” value. In the same way that people visit the Sherlock Homes museum in Baker Street or the Reichenbachfall. It brings us closer, in some way, to the creator and may even help us place the work in some physical geographical place. But ultimately it is of little importance in helping us understand, or even more importantly “enjoy, the works themselves. I might even suggest that Bayreuth is less important than say Baker Street is to Sherlockians. For whereas, London is as part of the atmosphere (maybe even the very “being”) of the Holmes stories, Bayreuth is certainly not geographically linked or intrinsic to the Ring Cycle in any meaningful or evenmetaphysical way

    Indeed, apart from your response, I have seen very little else to persuade me otherwise. I would actually go further by suggesting that it is as far removed from Wagner’s original ideas for a German version of Athenian, collaborative – and free theatre – as it is possible to be. Was it not disgust of this very fact – and what Bayreuth came to represent from its opening night – that lead to a confirmation of his more “extreme” thoughts on Wagner and his art originally found in Nietzsche’s unedited “Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen“ and later greatly extended? Indeed, if Bayreuth is important it maybe for its unintended contribution in helping Nietzsche develop his own philosophy.

    Yes, Bayreuth is of sentimental value to wagnerites and for this reason is of great importance, but as important as the recent fuss has made it seem? Until I see artistic evidence of this of late I cannot agree – to my great disappointment.

    To the second point:

    Firstly, I am not against so-called Rigietheatre or experimental theatre – far from it. Indeed, one of my most favored Parsifals (and I use as an example because it is available on video and youtube and thus anyone can watch) is Syberberg’s Parsifal – a ‘production’ I would not be without. I am also highly enamoured with the ‘new’ Berlin Tristan. No, it is not Regietheatre that I have an issue with it is ‘poor’ regietheatre. Alas this is something that has grown in prominence at Bayreuth. These productions are not something that bring anything new to text or even the music but prove to be little more than – to use a description that Nietzsche might have been comfortable with – poor, ill conceived, laughable ‘bourgeoisie’ indulgences. Not even critics who are normally the most ‘forgiving’ or ‘receptive’ of regietheatre productions had a good thing to say about the new Tannhäuser – to use an extreme example. Alas, not all of the elongated rehearsal times in the world (rehearsal times cut short greatly under the present management) can make a simply ‘silly’ production with an average cast and increasing uncomfortable conductor, into a great production

    As to your last question – having experienced both I would have to decline both tickets. :-)

  • I find myself agreeing entirely with The Wagnerian on this matter. Eurotrash Regietheater (as opposed to Regietheater properly done) has been something of an _idée fixe_ on my blog (Sounds & Fury, which is not a blog devoted to things Wagnerian but contains so much on Wagner that it’s been accused of being just that), most particularly as it concerns stagings of Wagner’s operas and music-dramas, and since the Chéreau _Ring_ the Bayreuther Festspiele has been a premiere enabler of this sort of appalling trash — so much so that the Festspiele is today the very last venue one should look to to experience a Wagner music-drama so corrupted has the Festspiele become artistically. Your argument of the Festspiele as “laboratory” is, I think, quite wrongheaded, and your citing of Wagner’s remark to “do it differently” out of context and misplaced. Surely, you cannot believe that Wagner meant the kind of “differently” that is today practiced at the Festspiele. The very idea is quite absurd. What’s practiced today at the Festspiele in terms of stagings is a fundamental betrayal of what the Festspiele was founded for by its founder: to be the one place in the world where audiences could experience model productions of his works as *he* envisioned them (*envisioned* them, NOT staged them), not as they’re envisioned by this or that stage director, especially those who care little or nothing for Wagner’s vision but are self-servingly interested only in presenting their own.

    In 2010 I posted an entry on S&F titled “Perhaps It’s Time” which was, in effect, my farewell to the Festspiele. In that entry, I wrote in part (the “we” is editorial):

    === Begin Quote ===
    Has [the attenuated interest in the Festspiele outside Germany come about because] the Festspiele [has simply] outlived its outside-Germany relevance and importance, or is it rather the cumulative artistic damage, both musical and theatrical, that’s been done to the Festspiele over the past 44 years under the general directorship of recently deceased (21 March 2010) Wagner grandson Wolfgang Wagner subsequent to the untimely death of his brother, the brilliant director and stage designer Wieland, in 1966, or a combination of the two, or something else entirely?

    We don’t know the real answer to that question, but we’d be willing to put our money behind the proposition that the Festspiele has lost its outside-Germany relevance and importance due the cumulative artistic damage, both musical and theatrical, that’s been done to the Festspiele over the past 44 years under the general directorship of Wolfgang Wagner, and bet further that it will require an artistic reordering, both musical and theatrical, of momentous proportions to restore the Festspiele to its pre-war artistic excellence and glory and outside-Germany relevance and importance.

    And of what would such an artistic reordering consist? The requirements are three in number.

    First, luring back to the Festspiele world-class singer-actors appropriate to the roles — a major problem as few such singer-actors exist, today as in times past. Second, luring back to the Festspiele Wagner conductors of the first water — again, a major problem as few such conductors exist today, most present-day conductors unsympathetic or outright hostile to or repulsed by the hyper-Romantic rhetoric Wagner’s music both requires and demands. And finally, the jettisoning and firm disavowal of Eurotrash Regietheater stagings which today and for several decades now have disgraced the Festspiele’s stage and everything the Festspiele stands for — or, rather, should stand for — according to the imperatives and mandates of the Festspiele’s founding genius, Richard Wagner.

    There’s but a limited amount that can be done to satisfy the demands of the first two requirements, but a huge amount that can be done to satisfy the demands of the third. Sadly, even ominously from our standpoint, the new co-directors of the Festspiele — Wolfgang Wagner’s two daughters, Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier — are not only disinclined to satisfy the demands of that third requirement but seem intransigently committed to flying in the face of it as was their father before them, in the false and perverse belief that it is just such stagings that will guarantee the future outside-Germany relevance and importance of the Festspiele.

    Well, it’s been a long and checkered career for the Bayreuther Festspiele, both artistically and otherwise, since its establishment in 1876 and today the oldest music festival extant, and perhaps it’s now time to remember fondly its past days of artistic excellence and glory and bid a final farewell. After all, nothing lasts forever.
    === End Quote ===


Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *